MSU Billings College of Business

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MSU Billings' Inaugural Hall of Fame Class of 2014

Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson A trailblazer in the loan approval business, Chris Nelson has come a long way from the day when he was making loan recommendations from his basement apartment in the 1980s.


While working in the financial services industry as a recent graduate of Eastern Montana College, Nelson recognized the industry’s crucial need of automated, speedy loan approval services. He developed software, and from there built the empire that is now Bozeman-based Zoot Enterprises.


Nelson held the rights to his PC-based credit retrieval program and started selling it to major lending companies like American Express.


His first buyer was Valley National Bank of Arizona. Nelson created a new “Loan by Phone” program that allowed the bank to process credit applications by phone in 15 minutes.


Zoot has pioneered the industry since its founding in 1990. Today, Nelson’s program can gather and analyze credit information in a fraction of a second.


Under Nelson’s leadership, the company has grown to a multimillion-dollar company, processing some 350 million loan applications annually while serving seven of the country’s top ten financial institutions.


“For Zoot, we were just in the right place at the right time to make the first automated credit decision,” Nelson said. “We got to make lots of mistakes and grow-up in an industry that was growing very fast.”


A global provider of advanced loan origination, account acquisition and credit risk management solutions, Zoot is owned entirely by Nelson and his employees—almost all graduates of Montana universities.


Employees are encouraged to be comfortable at work, wearing everything from jeans and T-shirts to flip-flops and shorts. Dogs and kids are welcome too.

The 155,000 square-foot brick building is sits on a 160-acre campus, surrounded by spectacular views of the Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges.

Beyond the enormous glass entryway, employees and guests are greeted in a marble and oak-accented lobby, with an open-glass staircase leading to a balcony on the third floor. Other features of the $18.2 million property include an underground parking garage, a gym, biking and walking trails and gallery space featuring local artists.


“Our culture here at Zoot is by design, intended to foster good ideas in a supportive and casual atmosphere,” Nelson said. “I don’t care what people wear to work, as long as they do great work.”


And while Nelson is quite humble when recounting his company’s success and significant community contributions, his innovations have introduced numerous industry-changing innovations to the market and received several industry awards.


Born and raised in Billings, 52-year-old Nelson graduated from EMC in 1978 with accounting and information systems degrees.


Among his many accolades, he takes most pride in his son, Shawn, who has joined his father in the Zoot business as its business manager, his granddaughter, and his best friend, Izzy—an energetic Australian Shepherd who accompanies him to the office every day.